The Willy Wonka of Wine Tourism

Wednesday, 9 May, 2018
Graham Howe
Graham Howe experiences the hottest new wine tourism trends while attending the annual Australian Tourism Exchange in Adelaide in April 2018.

Adelaide, South Australia is on the cutting-edge of wine and food destination marketing. The gateway to 200 cellar doors located within ninety minutes of the city, renowned wine regions like Adelaide Hills, McLaren Vale, Barossa and Clare Valley are a major draw card for domestic and international tourism. South Australia is home to 18 wine regions, 8 out of the 22 cellars rated as Ultimate Winery Experiences Australia – a national collection of the heroes of the Australian wine industry - and a member of the great wine capitals “best of wine tourism” network.

While attending the Australian Tourism Exchange 2018 in Adelaide in April, I visited most of the top South Australian cellars which have made the hot list as Ultimate Winery Experiences – including d’Arenberg, Penfolds Magill, Seppeltsfield, St Hugo and Yalumba. “Wine and design” is one of the hottest trends in Australian tourism. A series of conceptual art and architecture experiences are reshaping wine tourism – led by the high-tech Cube, an avant-garde interactive tasting, art, virtual winemaking space, wine bar and restaurant which opened recently at d’Arenberg winery. The Cube may boost wine tourism to South Australia in the way Mona art gallery at Moorilla did in Tasmania.

The Cube at d'Arenberg in McLaren Vale South Australia

The five-storey glass and steel Cube – a stack of cubes resembling an unsolved Rubik’s Cube – is like an apparition in the rolling vineyards of McLaren Vale wine country. The brainchild of Chester Osborn, the eccentric fourth generation family winemaker, The Cube invites visitors to share in the puzzle of winemaking through a series of tactile exhibits. The legendary viticulturist who took over the reins from his father in 1984, walked us around his newest creation which highlights “life and death” and the dangers of winemaking – taking visitors inside virtual open fermenters (all red wines are foot-trod in fish-waders) – and into a claustrophobic closed tank through curtains of VHS tape.

Inside the wine sensory cube, a wall of fruit, flowers and vegetables tempts visitors with spritzers which release a range of varietal aromas – leading to a geological timeline which explores the ancient soils of McLaren Vale. Another cube shows a 360o film on the farm – while a gallery of street art and wine art acquired around the world by Chester, an avid collector, enthrals guests, from an extinct Siberian tiger to the original deed of sale on his grandfather’s desk. D’Arenberg is one of twelve multi-generational wine farms which formed Australia’s First Families of wine in 2009. The Cube offers tastings of the foot-trod, basket pressed single vineyard wines of d’Arenberg from their legendary The Dead Arm Shiraz to Derelict Vineyard Grenache and Money Spider Roussanne.

Chester, dressed in his psychedelic “flower power” suits and golden toe cat boots leaves to greet another group of visitors. On the top floor I meet his father d’Arry (92), who made some sixty vintages at d’Arenberg before passing on the baton to Chester in 1984, the self-styled “Willy Wonka of Wine”. Every wine and colourful label tells a quirky story of the history of the area and of the 150 growers who nurture these mostly dryland single vineyards and keep the world’s old vines alive. The Cenosilicaphobic Wine Club – named after the fear of an empty wine glass! – tempts members with 72 wines made from 32 varieties, from The Anthropocene Epoch Mencia to the Noble Botryotina Fuckeliana! The Cube restaurant is run by South African Michelin-trained Brendan Wessels and Lindsay Durr who created a degustation experience to match the wines – from smoked barramundi bush coals to an amazing pressed watermelon tom yum, black pudding and four spice doughnuts.    

South African chefs are making their mark in Adelaide. Duncan Welgemoed, chef of Africola, was one of the stars of Tasting Australia 2018, the biggest annual food festival in Australia, which took place during ATE2018. Africola, The Adelaide Advertiser’s Restaurant of the Year 2017 – described as “Öttolenghi on steroids with a sense of humour” – serves up peri peri chicken chakalaka on an acclaimed menu which ranges from North Africa to the South. Africola rubs shoulders with the finest restaurants in Adelaide – like chef-owner Jock Zonfrillo’s Orana (Welcome!), Gourmet Traveller restaurant of the year 2018 – in the gastronomic gateway to the winelands of South Australia.   

At the wine pavilion at Tasting Australia on Victoria Square, I sampled the acclaimed wines of Wirra Wirra of McLaren Vale – as well as Two Hands Holy Grail Shiraz, an iconic producer of the hero variety of the Barossa which makes twelve single vineyard and single region Shiraz wines from throughout South Australia. The wine tasting on the square showcased benchmark wineries of South Australia with master classes on “egg heads” (“when winemakers think outside the square fermenter and climb inside the egg”), “Riesling Smackdown (Clare vs Eden Valley) and “The glory of Grenache”.

I revisited Penfold’s iconic Magill Estate in the Adelaide Hills, on the outskirts of the city. The birthplace of Penfolds Grange Shiraz, a benchmark for new world wine since the 1950s, Magill, founded in 1844, was a pioneer of the wine industry in Australia. The estate’s restaurant, rated #13 for fine dining in Australia by Gourmet Traveller, serves every vintage of Grange on the wine list, starting with the maiden 1951 vintage at A$ 100 000 (R1m) per bottle! On a tour and tasting with Zoe Warrington, Penfolds ambassador, she pointed out some of the oldest rootstock – the original Muscat vines cuttings came from Constantia.  The annual release of a new Grange vintage is a major event on the wine calendar – a regular five-star wine rated 100 points by Parker’s Wine Advocate.

The priceless Grange Shiraz Collection vaults at Magill Estate

“Welcome to the driest vineyards in the driest state on the driest continent” was a refrain I heard often on my journey through South Australia. The stylish new tasting centre and lounge at Magill Estate offers a range of tastings in dedicated wine libraries from a blending experience to the ultimate Penfolds Experience and a taste of Grange. A ferment of Coonawarra Cabernet and Sangiovese was underway as we walked towards the tunnels of the old bluestone cellar – originally known as “bins” (batch identification number) – and ogled the magnum collection of Grange vintages. A picture of Penfolds legendary Kalimna block #42 planted in 1888 is reputed to be one of the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in the world. Phylloxera never came to South Australia – leaving some of the world’s oldest vines still in production – going into Australia’s oldest wine brand.

After admiring the fortified blending vats – including the famous Helen Keller vat named after her visit in 1948 – I learned that Magill Estate was preparing for another celebrity visitor: Prince Edward en route home from the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. I left reluctantly on a day which hit 40o in the vineyards, after tasting some of the top wines in the Penfolds stable – St Henri Shiraz (A$125 or R1250), Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz 2005 (A$250 or R2500), the RWT (Red Wine Trial) Shiraz 2015 (A$125 or R1250) and Reserve Chardonnay from Adelaide Hills – winner of IWSC best white wine in the world. Finishing on a taste of the current Grange 2013 (A$850 – R8500) I left wondering about the origin of an old Penfolds Cellar Rules sign which read, “Whistling or singing in or about the cellar is strictly prohibited … Smoking is strictly prohibited except during meal hours!”

  • Graham Howe attended the Australian Tourism Exchange 2018 in Australia as a guest of Tourism Australia (australia.com) and South Australian Tourism Commission (see www.southaustralia.com)  

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is likely the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for a wide variety of print media, online and radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over seventy countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra.

The virtual ferment room inside the Cube
The virtual ferment room inside the Cube

The fourth generation winemaker at d'Arenberg Chester Osborn
The fourth generation winemaker at d'Arenberg Chester Osborn

The fortified barrel cellar at Magill
The fortified barrel cellar at Magill

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